Paul and Justin on Pneuma

This post is part of an ongoing series on Paul and Pneuma, Justin and Judaism.

Turning to Justin’s views on pneuma, it is instructive that the Dialogue opens with reflections on his philosophical journey to Christianity, wherein he remarks that he learned “nothing new about God” while studying under the tutelage of a Stoic (Dial. 2.3). As Justin goes on to explain his journey through Platonism in Dial. 2.6-8.2, he highlights the Platonic priority of the spiritual—that the eternal and unchanging is superior to the ephemeral and changing.[1] In clear contrast to the Stoic concept of the ultimate, in Justin’s mind the ideal remained detached from materiality.[2] We must be wary to not over-read Cartesian dualism back into Justin’s Platonism. However, his Platonic dualism—wherein God was the transcendent ideal which was distinct from perceptible reality[3]—stood at odds with Paul’s Stoic pneumatology—wherein God was made of the same stuff as the rest of reality, albeit in a higher and more animate form than the rest of the cosmos.

The divergence between an immanently accessible pneuma and a categorically ultimate pneuma begins to demonstrate Justin’s shift away from the cosmology and grammar of Paul. For Paul, the boundaries of the People of God are somewhat malleable, as the pneumatic motion of Christ animates the cosmos. For Justin, the ultimate stands as a measure which must be met by those claiming God’s inheritance (Dial. 11.2-3). In other words, “This eternal covenant establishes who is a true, spiritual Israelite and Judaite, and who is not, taking the place of all other aspirants to those names.”[4] Justin still speaks of the pneuma, but when he does so he contrasts its higher reality with lower fleshliness, as in Dial. 135.6, where he compares the two houses of Jacob: “the one born of flesh and blood, and the other of faith and the Spirit.” To summarize the differences between Paul’s and Justin’s views on pneuma: Paul operates under Stoic presuppositions, believing that all reality is material. Justin thinks, like a Platonist, that reality is divided into the ideal and the perceptible. When Paul talks about being in the pneuma he takes that to mean corporeal participation in the stuff that constitutes God. When Justin talks about being in the pneuma he presumes it means existence in an ideal and that there also exists a contrast—the perceptible. Justin believes there is a difference between the new ideal of life in the pneuma of Jesus and the old perceptible law of Judaism. This is a development from Paul, for whom there is only one level of pneumatic reality into which Gentiles can be grafted. These different cosmologies and their attendant theological grammars result in several divergent aspects of practical theology.

First, while Justin would affirm along with Paul that Christ-followers possess the pneuma, he would have understood the implications of that statement differently than Paul. For Paul, participation in the material pneuma meant reception of the “very DNA” of Christ’s body.[5] For Justin, participation in the pneuma meant standing on the “ideal” side of divided reality.[6] Second, where Paul spoke of the pneuma as power to enact the fruits of the Spirit in the Christian life (Gal. 5:25),[7] Justin viewed the pneuma primarily as a one who speaks through Jesus-followers.[8] Third, whereas for Paul the pneuma inhabits all of reality, Justin has moved onto to the logos as that which inhabits all of the cosmos.[9] This is due at least in part to Justin’s interpretation of the pneuma as belonging to the realm of the ideal, thereby necessarily preventing its mixing with the corporeal. For Justin, the incarnate logos stands in the gap, uniting the pneumatic ideal with the materiality of the perceptible in the mystery of the incarnation.[10] Finally, where Paul viewed the work of the pneuma as bringing the Gentiles into the family of God, Justin interpreted language of pneuma and sarx as references to the new transcending the old. Indeed, Justin stands as the first Christian writer to “explicitly argue for the cessation of the Spirit from Judaism following the coming of Christ.”[11] These differing conceptions of pneuma in hand, I now turn to aspects of Justin’s reception and transformation of Pauline thought concerning the ancestry of Abraham and identity of the true Israel.[12]


[1] Dial. 2.6, 4.1-7. de Beer, 376.

[2] Thorsteinsson, “Justin,” 533. de Beer, 376-7. On this, de Beer writes, “Of the utmost importance for the Christian religion is Plato’s doctrinal insistence on the priority of the spiritual: the eternal, unchanging soul is superior to the ephemeral, changing body and precedes it in time, both for the world as a whole and for human beings. It is further maintained by Plato that the highest life, which is spiritual and eternal life, is made possible by the presence of the soul, while the soul is contaminated by matter, including the physical body. Thus, both the Platonist and Christian traditions teach that the invisible things are more important than the visible things.” See de Beer, 376.

[3] John M. Dillon, “Platonism” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 5 (O-Sh) (ed. D.N. Freedman, New York and London: Doubleday, 1992), V.380.

[4] Chilton, 83. Dial. 11.5. See also Isa. 55.3-4.

[5] Thiessen, 117.

[6] Dial. 11.5.

[7] W. Wright, 17, 22. 1 Cor. 6.11. Rom. 8.1.

[8] Dial. 56.14. Kyle R. Hughes, “The Spirit Speaks: Pneumatological Innovation in the Scriptural Exegesis of Justin and Tertullian,” VC 69 (2015): 465, 470. See also 1 Apol. 36.1-2.

[9] Dial. 62.2-3, 128-129.

[10] Dial. 35.5, 39.4-6, 61.1-5, 84-85.

[11] Hughes, 481. Lieu, Image and Reality, 103-48. Susan Wendel suggests that, in Justin’s view, when Jesus received the pneuma, it departed from Israel’s prophets. See Susan Wendel, “Interpreting the Descent of the Spirit: A Comparison of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho and Luke-Acts” in Justin Martyr and His Worlds (ed. S. Parvis and P. Foster, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 97. Dial. 87.1-2.

[12] Another aspect of possible divergence between Paul and Justin concerns the miraculous. See Dial. 30-31, 35, 39, 76, 85. On this Kelhoffer concludes, “Despite their common assumptions, Paul and Justin have strikingly contrasting goals in their appeals to the miraculous. Paul is usually concerned with defending his own authority by virtue of his own miracles…. In contrast with most of Paul’s statements, Justin Martyr refers to exorcisms performed by others and maintains that these wonders demonstrate the validity of certain parts of his larger apologetic enterprise.” See James A. Kelhoffer, “The Apostle Paul and Justin Martyr on the Miraculous: A Comparison of Appeals to Authority,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 42 (2001): 183-4.

Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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